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Florida: Where Bad Ideas are Born
Unfortunately, they don't stay there
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was trying to reshape a small liberal arts college by appointing anti-CRT crusaders to its board. One of the most prominent, Christopher Rufo, has said that he wants people to “read something crazy going on in schools and immediately assume it’s about Critical Race Theory”. When others point out that CRT is a particular approach within legal studies that does not impact students not yet in grad school, the CRT critics make it mean whatever they want and continue their attacks.
This was well illustrated last week (two days after the MLK holiday) when the Florida Community College presidents released a statement affirming diversity while decrying CRT. Their formal statement includes the following:
our institutions will not fund or support any institutional practice, policy, or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon.
I was stunned when I read their statement. Not because they don’t understand CRT and its role in undergraduate education. But because they make the same conceptual shift that Rufo suggests, blending CRT with “related concepts such as intersectionality”.
Intersectionality is a fairly simple (and widespread) sociological idea. It suggests that in addition to looking at issues of race or gender or immigration status, we need to understand that ways in which those variables “intersect”. In other words, we can talk about white vs black wealth or male vs female income or native vs immigrant access to public services. But intersectionality requires us to consider the unique role of the black female immigrant. That’s not CRT. It’s a recognition that various minority statuses overlap in deleterious ways.
The anti-CRT fervor makes it very difficult to talk about America’s racial history because it wants to redefine everything to interpersonal racism in the past. Everyone want to focus on that one line at the end of the “I Have a Dream” speech. As historian Kevin Kruse1 pointed out two years ago, there’s more to MLK than that one line.
I didn’t write about MLK last Monday because it seemed I’d get lost in all the other think pieces that were showing up. But I keep coming back to King’s speech at the National Cathedral the Sunday before he was assassinated. Titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”, he talks of the challenges of race, poverty, and militarism2.
Consider this passage which comes very close to Critical Race Theory as it explores the way specific government policies created racial inequalities extant in 1968:
In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, "Now you are free," but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.
Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, "You’re free," and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.
But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.
We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.
It’s the second and third paragraphs here that stand out to me. King brilliantly outlines the ways in which government policies like the Homestead Act, coupled with Land Grant institutions, Farmers Extension Agents, and even crop subsidies created an imbalanced economy. He doesn’t even mention other policies like the GI Bill or the FHA (both of which excluded Blacks for their provisions).
How do you teach anyone not simply about these historical artifacts but about their present day impacts generations later? As the American Association of University Professors observed in response to the Florida Community College presidents, they are removing issues of academic specialization and academic freedom from faculty members.3
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Critical Race Theory (CRT) is antithetical to the traditional American values of neutrality, equality, and fairness. It emphasizes skin color as a person’s primary characteristic, thereby resurrecting segregationist values, which America has fought so hard to reject;
First, this precisely repeats the blurred definition of Critical Race Theory that Rufo called for. It’s simply not what CRT has ever done. Second, how in the world is a history teacher in Arkansas supposed to explain this photo to her students?
This is the US military, at the order of President Eisenhower, helping the Little Rock Nine get to school. It required the US government’s formal power to enforce the 1954 Brown decision. Not shown in this picture is the angry crowd6 taunting and threatening the students.
This past weekend, the Washington Post had a great story about professor Marvin Dunn and his “teach the truth” tours he gives to high school students and other interested parties. Retired from Florida Atlantic,7 Dunn is one of the plaintiffs suing the governor over the Stop Woke act. His tours focus on atrocities that are an inescapable part of Florida's history.
The Post story quotes DeSantis’ chief of staff who decries “woke” as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them” and that the governor disagrees. It’s hard to reconcile King’s comments and the plight of the Little Rock Nine with a picture of history that denies systemic injustice.
There is a positive light in the story as well. One of the original sponsors of the Stop Woke act outlines his view as follows:
“Learning history will create anguish. People should feel anguish when they learn we had slavery in this country. But the teachers shouldn’t be telling people how to feel,” Fine said. “That’s what the law says. It doesn’t say you can’t teach things that will make you feel bad. That’s not what it says because a lot of things will. But it says you can’t tell them how to feel. That’s indoctrination.”
I find this to be a remarkable admission. His concern isn’t that white students would be horrified and ashamed by the atrocities on Dunn’s tours or by structural barriers limiting Black advancement. It’s that he didn’t want teachers to tell students that they must feel horrified and ashamed.
Unfortunately, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. As reasonable as that position might be (and I would never tell a student how they must feel), too many others don’t want such clarity because it gets in the way of their larger political ambitions. For now, it may be to “stick it to the libs” but in the long run it gives freedom to very serious abuses.8
Kruse is co-editor of the recently released Myth America, which features historians painting a more fulsome picture of much of what we take for granted in contemporary society.
Which is in itself another example of intersectionality.
Which, as I pointed out in my earlier piece, is likely to run afoul of the higher ed accrediting bodies.
Also celebrated as Robert E. Lee Day in Alabama!
Claims by a governor or college president may generally be ignored until some type of enforcement is involved. George Will had a recent piece in the Washington Post arguing that a reproductive freedom statement by the Berkeley president created an unsafe environment for faculty who disagreed. In my experience, no faculty member pays much attention to what the college president says. I imagine governors are the same.
Google Jerry Jones and Little Rock Nine and see what you get.
There is great intellectual freedom that comes with being retired!
The most outrageous (at the moment) are restrictions place on Florida teachers’ personal libraries. If they aren’t properly vetted by the right authorities, the teacher can be charged with a third-degree felony. While that sounds extreme, don’t forget that DeSantis gloried in having felons arrested for voting after the elections office sent them voter registration forms.